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Decline and fall: the ailing nuclear power industry.

Decline and Fail: The Ailing Nuclear Power Industry.

Decline and Fail: The Ailing Nuclear Power Industry. Peter Stoler. Dodd, Mead, $16.95. Occasionally, I entertain a suspicion that one little surprise the 21st century has in store is that nuclear power will turn out to be important after all. Despite its title, Decline and Fail argues that such a development is not only likely but desirable. A quick check of the dust jacket finds the book endorsed by Carl Walske, president of the Atomic Industrial Forum, the nuclear industry's lobbying organization (Walske, by the way, is quoted several times inside the book, in approving contexts, which gives you some idea of how the blurb business works.)

The author, Peter Stoler, is with Time magazine. Time and Newsweek use a system under which "reporters' and "writers' are separate breeds. Reporters do interviews in the field and file something like diplomatic cables to writers in New York, who produce words. This curious arrangement engenders the classic newsweekly story, in which the author seems to have an astonishing depth of information at his disposal yet does not understand what he is talking about.

Apparently Decline and Fail was written in the same fashion. As far as can be determined from the text, Stoler did little or no reporting. Nearly everything in the book is attributed to articles in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, magazines, or books. In the few cases where it appears the author did more than simply whiz through the clip files, the results are not reassuring:

""I resent it when someone in a corporate boardroom decides what risks I should accept,' says Pennsylvania, woman who cannot look out her window without seeing the cooling towers of Three Mile Island.' Time is famed for punctuating stories with perfect quotes from conveniently anonymous sources even when there is no reason for the speaker's name to be withheld. Elsewhere: ""Nuclear power has been walking around like Dracula for the last few years,' said a young man who answered the phone at the San Francisco headquarters of the Sierra Club. "These cancellations are the stake through its heart.'' Let's hope the usual factual standard at Time is a little higher than "a young man who answered the telephone.'

Disciples of the Time ethos may defend file-based journalism, but the substance of several chapters of Decline and Fail--nearly half the book--appears to have been all but lifted from two earlier and far better books, The Cult of the Atom, by Daniel Ford, and The Nuclear Barons, by Peter Pringle and James Spigelman. In his notes section, Stoler cites Cult 43 times and Barons 27 times, yet in the text the former work is mentioned only twice and the latter not at all.

When Stoler speaks for himself, he adds little. Hiroshima and Nagasaki "[b]lasted into the minds of many scientists, as well as many ordinary people, a fear of the atom and its awesome power, a fear that remains unabated. Which is unfortunate. The atom itself is an innocent thing, devoid of politics, philosophy, or intent. The idea of the atom, in fact, goes back more than 2,000 years.'

Stoler decries both the knee-jerk, anti-nuke attitudes found on the left and the unquestioning adoration of nukes, no matter how expensive or impractical, found on the right. But he never takes us inside the minds of the various factions to explain why such unreasonable extremes have developed, nor does he provide any level of understanding beyond "the industry said this, but critics said that.' (An extraordinary view into the culture of the pro-nuclear faction can be found in Nuclear Barons, one of the most unappreciated nonfiction books of recent years.) Stoler recites over and again the litany of troubled nuclear generating projects--bad workmanship, arrogant unions, flawed design, incompetent inspections-- without shedding any light on why this happens. Lots of complex industrial facilities get built without countless screw-ups: why is nuclear power work, by labor, management, and regulators alike, so often shoddy? Answering questions like this would be central to building a case for increased future use of the atom, but Decline and Fail offers few clues.

In a brief chapter of recommendations, Stoler declares that nuclear power could become fine and dandy if federal regulation was tightened while red tape was slashed, without pausing to indicate how this miracle would be accomplished. Throughout this chapter he speaks constantly of "the government,' as in, "The most important thing the government can do is be honest,' or "There is only one way the government can resolve this conflict.' What's the government? Is it Congress? The President? The NRC, EPA, DOE, or Supreme Court? Imagining that Washington is a monolithic Government with a single orchestrated Plan is naive to say the least and suggests the kind of world view that results from reading clips and bureau reports rather than seeking answers in the flesh. There may indeed be a convincing book to be written advocating a revival of nuclear power. Decline and Fall isn't it.
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Copyright 1985, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Easterbrook, Gregg
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1985
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